Monday, 30 November 2009

Electrical Gadgetry

I went to see Mum this afternoon to find that she’d been sent a couple of electricity-saving devices free of charge by British Gas…….despite the fact that she doesn’t buy her electricity from them!

One was one of those gizmos which shows how much power you’re using at any given time. Is it a "Consumption Meter"? Anyway, it took quite a bit of setting up and programming, even for a super-technical whiz-kid like myself (yeah, right) but gives some interesting results. In particular, turning on a kettle or the oven is actually a bit scary. In that sense, they’re a good idea; it just struck me that the stuff that’s easier to turn off (eg lights, radio) is exactly the sort of equipment which uses only negligible amounts. to really save money you need to stop eating and drinking. That would seem to be very effective.

More bewildering was the other “gift”: one of those multi-point sockets which turns off equipment left in stand-by mode, mainly the TV set. This took for ever to set up and – frankly – didn’t work very effectively. Things stubbornly refused to come back to life when turned back on. Dreading an urgent telephone call to "come quickly" because “the telly doesn’t work”, I promptly unistalled it…….

Wouldn’t mind one of the consumption meters though. I wonder if our supplier (Atlantic) feels like sending us one?

Bath Time!

One of the perks of being a “Blue Badge” guide is that sometimes you get invited “behind the scenes” to places not normally or often accessible to the general public. Thus over the years I’ve climbed up to see Big Ben, been to the Birmingham Assay Office and so on.

Well, on Thursday, I was able to join a group of guides going “behind the scenes”

at the Roman Baths in, er, Bath. We toured several of the tunnels not open to the public and saw Roman remains virtually as they were found by early 19th century archaeologists. We even saw where water used to be siphoned off for the Mineral Water Hospital and where the spring was “bypassed” in the seventies to prevent contamination.

Really fascinating stuff.

Incidentally, behind the scenes or not, the Roman Bath is well worth visiting, either if you’ve never been before or else if you’ve not been for a long time. There are some very well done displays and models now and I never fail to be captivated by the head of Minerva which is one of the principal artefacts in the Bath.

Must get myself to Thermae though one of theses days.

Walsall Metrobus Farewell

I had a Saturday off this weekend (rare!) which allowed me to head off to Walsall to watch the last day of operation of MCW Metrobuses there. For the non cognoscenti, Metrobuses were double decker buses built in Birmingham from 1977 until 1989.

WMPTE, the then local transport organisation in the West Midlands, showed considerable loyalty to local industry by building up a vast fleet of these buses. These then passed to their private-sector successor (variously called West Midlands Travel, Travel West Midlands and now National Express West Midlands) on privatisation in 1986.

The fleet has been gradually running down over the past few years but they have still been part of the local scene for so long that their passing attracted a fair bit of local enthusiast attention.

I think it’s fair to say that there was a certain type of person taking photographs yesterday. Actually, there were three types: the out-and-out anoraks (plentiful), the middle aged single men with Received Pronunciation and canvas camera bags (less plentiful) and er, me (unique).

There are some photos on my Facebook page at:


I have lots of “bitty” stuff to do this morning and feel in the need for some relaxing music. Normally, this involves pressing the BBC Radio 3 button but from time to time (including this morning) I listen to a Melbourne classical music station called 3MBS.

From what I can gather, it’s actually an amateur station (by which I mean it’s run by volunteers for the love of it, not that it’s in any way sub-standard, which it certainly isn’t). Australians use the term "community station" for this, an idea mooted many time in the UK but which has never really happened. Certainly not like this, anyway!

The musical choice (and the commentaries that go with it) of 3MBS are done with a great deal of intelligence and it’s a bit of a text book case in Good Radio. If you can listen to radio on line it’s well worth doing so. (In the unlikely event that you’re in Melbourne you can even hear it on FM!)

"The Queen"

Did anyone watch the first of Channel 4’s drama documentaries “The Queen” last night? Although a lot of what went on in private was obviously conjecture and Emilia Fox plainly wasn’t Helen Mirren, I thought it was rather well done.

Drama-doc was a genre that ITV (and latterly Channel 4) used to do rather well and done properly can be a very effective story-telling tool.

I’m looking forward to the subsequent instalments, with a different actress playing HM in each, at a different time in her life.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Modesty Forbids!

We went to a SPICE Birmingham Turkish Bath evening last night. While relaxing in the Laconium (look it up!) someone said to me that he’d recently been on a town walk around Warwick “with a chap who was a professional tourist guide" and who "was really interesting”.

Modesty forbade…….but someone else told him instead! :-))

Sincere praise if nothing else, anyway.

I'm Back!

I’ve been missing from the Blogosphere for a while now. The usual reason for that is that things are frantically busy and that’s as true now as ever.

A lot’s happened since I last wrote.

Mum had a quite serious “flare up” of her arthritis last week, while I was working in Manchester. As if that wasn't enough, I managed to pull a muscle in my leg. When we both ended up getting to the doctors', we had a walking stick each! Fortunately both maladies seem to be under control now. (I've often complained about getting appointments with my GP; encouragingly, I was given an appointment for 40 minutes after I called and Mum was telephone back by her doctor within an hour of her problems. Evidently, they're getting better.)

In the way of work, I’ve been lucky enough to have had a commission to do a tour of Lincoln, which I carried out a week ago (just as the leg was starting to play up!). Lincoln is a very beautiful city and – despite dire predications of continuous rain – it stayed dry for most of the walk with a very appreciative group. One of the participants, Rob Gillespie, as a professional photographer and his photos of the day are visible online at

Make a date and take yourself to Lincoln sometime (but unless you really like crowds, avoid the Christmas Market!).

Saturday, 21 November 2009


I parked in a side road in Royal Leamington Spa today and - when I returned - found that the car next to me had a registration number identical except for one letter. I wonder what he chances are of that happening?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Local Hero

We use the term "emergency services" so often we don't often pause to think exactly what it means. These people, though, are the ones we rely on to be there and to protect us when we most need it and when we least expect it.

That makes the death of Cumbria Police Constable Bill Barker so especially poignant, swept away to his death while helping motorists from a doomed bridge in Workington.

The scenes of devastation in Cumbria have been quite shocking but most possessions, however precious, can be replaced. Life can't. PC Barker's family can only take comfort from the fact that he was helping others when he lost his life.

Local Hero? National hero.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

To Manchester and Back

I've been to Manchester and back today. The trains were on time and comfortable and - apart from costing £43.00 - this really is the way to travel.

I wish the trains were built less to look like the inside of aircraft and that they were longer (it gets crowded and feels a bit claustrophobic) but maybe that "aircraft" ambience is what attracts people more used to air travel these days?

One big plus point was that I was able to work on the train. I have a lot of deadlines lately and I really needed some productive work time without interruptions. The two journeys allowed that to happen and have effectively given me an evening off this evening.

I noticed that the Metrolink (Manchester's tramway system) was giving free rides today as a sot of "thank you" to regular passengers for putting up with a great deal of disruption in recent months during a big upgrade. Unfortunately, as I was there to earn a living I didn't actually get a tram ride. Not fair! :-)

My final musing on the Cottonopolis is to ask this: In the eighties, when Manchester was such a grim, post-industrial hole of a city, the Piccadilly Gardens were a lovely oasis of greenery in the centre; today, with Manchester enjoying an urban renaissance worthy of Birmingham, Newcastle or Leeds, why have they concreted over the gardens and placed a silly, unfinished-looking concrete wall of the type demolished 20 years ago this month in Berlin in the middle?

As they say Oop North: there's now so queer as folk!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Channel Five News "Changing Faces"

It’s not often that Channel 5 (sorry “Five”) grabs my attention for doing something splendid and worthwhile but they certainly have with this week’s policy of getting someone with a facial disfigurement to read the news.

If you've not hear of this, click on the link and go and take a look at what it's all been about.

Like a lot of “disabilities” - and I’m using that term in the very broadest sense of the word – what seems remarkably/different/surprising/shocking at first rapidly becomes ordinary or commonplace once we’ve seen it for a while.

See someone in a wheelchair, with dark glasses and a white stick, unable to speak or with a missing limb and the chances are that that’s the “feature” you notice about them straight away. Spend a little time in their company though and it rapidly becomes something that you no longer “notice”, not in the literal sense but just that you no longer think only of this “feature". You listen to what they’re saying, what they’re doing, what they can tell you, etc.

Society does a good job of hiding people with facial disfigurements. If this action by Five makes them seem a little bit less “unusual” then it will have been worth it.

What a positive thing to be writing about.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Sublime Day in Wells

I was doing a tour in Wells yesterday and arrived very early just to check things out. It was entirely worth the early start as – after a terrible rainy Saturday – Sunday was just wonderful. The sun rose over flooded fields in the most photogenic way possible and – as I was walking around the City before the group arrived – it looked simply stunning.

I regretted not having a camera with me but then remembered that my mobile has a camera which I seldom use; so I started snapping. They’re not brilliant photos but they do convey the sense of this amazing golden early sunshine and deserted streets.

When the group arrived, they were great, too, which always helps. For all the hassles, which we all have, I spent much of yesterday thinking what a great job I have. If you’ve never been to Wells – and it amazes me how few people have – then go. It’s always been one of my favourite places. Yesterday I felt as though I could have spent the rest of my life there.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Dreaded Receptionist

Had to take my mother to a hastily-arranged hospital appointment today.

Excellent service in most ways:

Rapid appointment (she's become poorly quite quickly and needed to be seen; we were seen in a clinic with three days).

Excellent doctor (good communication skills, excellent bedside manner, quickly found the problem and outlined solutions).

Prescribed medication and then asked us to come back in three weeks.

Then - of course - we encountered the Receptionist. Where do they find these people? Is there some sort of factory turning out middle aged women with stern faces, an inability to concentrate on you rather than their friend standing next to them and a default option that you can't have something?

No, we can't have an appointment three weeks today. No, nor in the days around it. No nor four weeks today. Well, you have an appointment anyway, for next May! Yes, we knew that; this was for something else. Well, we'll have to call the doctor's secretary on Monday. My name? Why would you want my name? Ad infinitum.

We now have the promise of an appointment on Friday 4 December 2009. Notwithstanding the telephone call on Monday. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Italian Restaurant With a Difference

We had a very pleasant meal tonight at one of our favourite local restaurants, "Casa Italia" on Hagley Road in Bearwood.

We normally head there when we have something to celebrate but tonight just felt like it for particular reason. Once we'd dodged the torrential downpour on the way from the car park and walked past the once notorious Cuddles massage parlour (!) there was as usual a delightful meal waiting for us.

Although Italian, we don't enjoy pizza or pasta when we go there. Rather they do the best steaks either of us have ever tasted. Their profiteroles are pretty amazing, too, although we didn't stretch to a third course tonight as we're trying to eat less than our own body weight at meal times these days. We're thinking of going there for New Year's Eve, though. If you're in or near Brum, this is somewhere definitely worth trying out.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Thought Provoking Radio

I was listening to BBC Radio Nottingham while driving this morning, not a station I ever have reason to listen to.

In their run up to coverage of the two minutes silence at 11.00am they put out what was a really intelligent and thought provoking piece involving a member of the Peace Pledge Union talking about pacifism and their views on Armistice Day.

As you might expect, it was controversial and support from listeners was scarce (although not non-existent). Nor did I agree with much of it, being both too cowardly to fight and too cowardly to conscientiously object. His stance was countered too by a representative from the Royal British Legion who – rightly – challenged a remark about veterans “marching with medals planning their next war”.

But it must be very easy to do straightforward and predictable pieces of radio for such occasions and this showed original thought. Well done BBC Nottingham.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Musical Brum

We've been to see the CBSO doing Holst's The Planets tonight at Symphony Hall.

The CBSO are always fabulous but tonight's performance was especially enjoyable. I do like The Planets and the CBSO are one of the biggest of Birmingham's plus points.

A few observations:

The ICC is a very dull building on the outside but from an architectural point of view it really does work! Symphony Hall is as brilliant today as it was when it opened.

We were almost caught in traffic heading to the NIA to see Muse. Never heard of them but I suppose that comes from inhabiting Jelfworld!

And finally, the first part of the evening saw the orchestra doing Grieg's Piano Concerto. I defy anyone to listen to that without thinking about Morecambe & Wise and Andre Preview!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Vorwärts in Einheit

So twenty years ago today, the amazing events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall came to pass. One of those occasions when |I have literally felt as though I was living through history.

I have treasured connections with Germany spanning four decades but for half of that time, the division of the country seemed as permanent as it was intractable. Then the era of Gorbachev, Perestroika and its now-forgotten precursor Glasnost cam along and All Things Were Possible.

The trickle of “refugees”, first via Hungary and Austria, became a torrent with West German politicians revising their “all Easterners are welcome here” in favour of “all are welcome but not all at once”!

I had gone on an organised group trip to look at the tram systems in Braunschweig and Hanover and we were staying in an hotel in Hildesheim. As the evening wore on, reports on the television in the bar gradually became a continuous news programme. Only a couple of us spoke reasonable German and as the scenes unfolded people kept asking us to explain what was going on. We could scarcely believe what we were hearing about “travel restrictions being eased”; it sounded as though the DDR government had “opened up” (as indeed they had) but so momentous was this that we weren’t sure we were understanding correctly.

The next day on the Autobahn we kept seeing little Trabants abandoned at the side of the road, where theu had run out of the two-stroke petrol we were told they needed.

Things were still in a state of flux when we left Germany a few days later. For a while , it looked as though the DDR might evolve into a democratic state but still a separate one. However, the tide of opinion and indeed of history was against this. Sentiment of Unity was unstoppable and the rest – of course – is history.

I would have loved, dearly loved, to have been in Berlin that night. But being in Germany at all was enough.

The Europe of today is not by any means perfect. But it – like Germany - is far the better for its unity.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Thoughts for Remembrance Sunday

This is the day of the year when all our thoughts turn to the sacrifices, the suffering, the pain and the downright obscenity of war.

Ironically, the idea of a formalised “Remembrance” was born out of the “never again” attitude of the general population after the First World War, that “war to end wars” which was nothing of the sort.

As the years have rolled by, the idea of Remembrance at this time in November became more and more detached in the public eye from reality, an abstract remembrance of a conflict long ago which many of us were lucky not to have experienced and for which we were thankful.

Occasionally, man’s inhumanity to man surfaced, with conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands; but generally we assumed that the era of conventional warfare was drawing to a close. With the end of the Cold War (and did I really watch the Berlin wall come down on a German TV report in Hildesheim 20 years ago this month?) world peace seemed assured.

How wrong we were. Incredibly, today we find ourselves witnessing bodies being flown back from Afghanistan with relentless regularity and – perhaps less publicly – a stream of servicemen (and women) injured, sometimes horribly and for whom their life will be changed for ever. These people, whose commitment and bravery exceeds anything I have inside me, give their all for a struggle which is not even fully understood or supported back home, making their lives even more difficult. It is they and the families of those lost that most need the ongoing work of the wonderful Royal British Legion, work concerned at least as much with the welfare of the living and the honour of the dead.

Every year the Legion exhorts us to “Wear Your Poppy With Pride”. I always have done; but this year that pride is both real and abiding.

Two minutes of reflection on the sacrifice of others is worthy but insufficient.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Aston Hall (again!)

When I took my US group to see the outside of Aston Hall last Thursday, I was surprised and delighted to have a member of staff there come out to us and ask if we’d like to have a look in the (locked) garden. This, like the Hall, is closed at this time of year but – with the recent restoration – he was obviously very keen to show off whatever he could of the place. “Money well spent” he chipped in when I told the group that it was partially Lottery-funded. And he was right.

I’ve been very negative about some aspects of tourism in Birmingham lately but this rather bucked the trend. He was young and Asian and I was (but shouldn’t have been) surprised to see someone like that enthuse about a Jacobean country house and its garden. This says more about me than him and I’m happy to show my gratitude for his eagerness in public.

This sort of enthusiasm comes with a new project and if you get everyone on side it can really pay dividends. It took me back to the heady years of 1992 and the small team of us starting up the Guide Friday open top bus tours in Birmingham. We were just like that: we loved what we were doing and felt terribly positive about it. Those were the days!

A few more people like him and Aston Hall will be one of the jewels of Birmingham again.

Thoughts on a Saturday Morning

(1) I’ve just seen the new garden fence next door have had built a week ago. (I’ve not been at home in daylight for a week!)

(2) I’ve started thinking in American English, due to working with the US group all week. Suddenly I’m thinking about “Cellphones” for mobiles, “Sidewalks” for pavements, “Buses” for coaches and “Beets” for Beetroot!

I need a French group urgently……. :-)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Yanks a Million!

I’ve been missing from BlogWorld for a while as I’ve been working pretty much continuously this week with an American group throughout the Midlands.

It’s been a very busy week, characterised by a series of very early starts to get to their base at Catton Hall on the Derbyshire Staffordshire border. However, hard work though it was, things were made considerably more pleasant by two other factors.

Firstly, they were a very pleasant group, largely the “accompanying persons” of a group taking part in a sort of Edwardian Shooting holiday.

Secondly (and most unusually) they had asked me to more or less concoct an itinerary for them myself. Unusual this might have been but it did mean that there were none of those ridiculously crowded days with impossible-to-achieve deadlines and skipping past places to say that you’ve “been there” rather than “seen it”.

A review of the group’s week gives an “interesting” insight into the world that is tourism in the Heart of England…….

On Monday went to explore Old Shropshire, with visits to Shrewsbury and Ludlow. These are two places I think are amongst the loveliest towns in the Midlands and deserve to be explored just as much as the Strafords and the Warwicks. If the group went anywhere because I put it in, then this was the day!

It was up into Derbyshire and the Peak District National Park on Tuesday for a visit to Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peak”. This was somewhere the group themselves chose to go, although I did add an Ian flourish by calling in at Buxton on the way up. Chatsworth is, of course, superb, although it was fully decorated for Christmas and I find it very difficult to be festive in, er, November.

Wednesday saw an unashamed assault on Tourist Central, going on a tour of Stratford-upon-Avon in the morning and a ride around the Cotswolds in the afternoon. Bizarrely, though, both were curiously deserved, even for November. I don’t think the group knew it but they were seeing it as quiet as it’s ever going to be!

I a little bemused that – despite free time in Stratford – no-one went into the Birthplace! Still, they found places to eat drink and shop and what keeps them happy keeps me happy!

It was back to Shropshire on Thursday for a look at the Iron Bridge and then the rest of the day at the recently-extended Blist’s Hill Victorian Town. The latter was awash with school groups and some of the staff seemed a little surprised to see a non-school group there.

I think it's fair to say they were less "blown away" by Blist's Hill than other groups I've taken there but it did give our transatlantic visitors the chance to learn about our pre-decimal money, though, which is as big a challenge for them to understand as Cricket!

And that brought us to today, another unashamedly “Ian” day, as I took them on a ride around Birmingham and a visit to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. On the way back we called into Lichfield to have a look at the Cathedral, the Lichfield Gospels and the newly-discovered Lichfield Angel.

And do you know, that was the only time all week that they found themselves outside in any rain? Everywhere else, it rained when on the coach and stopped as we left.

Whatever magical meteorological power it is that these people have, I want some of it. Could do with a few more like these, I tell you!